Friday, February 9, 2007

Review: The Last Sin Eater

With The Nativity Story playing to nothing but the chirping of crickets over the Christmas holiday (way to support the home team, church folks), studios have to be confused – and nervous. After Passion of the Christ made a mint, several had just launched Christian divisions for the overlooked faith market. Then that market up and overlooked the sure-bet “prequel” to Passion.

Actually, I know they’re nervous. Just last month, one of Fox Faith’s first outings, the well-made psycho-thriller Thr3e, was ruthlessly yanked from theaters less than two weeks out of the gate for failing to break the bank. It deserved better support from the distributor and viewers.

Luckily, believers still claiming they'll support solid, faith-based entertainment when it’s offered have a second chance to put their money where their mouth is this weekend. The Last Sin Eater, the film version of Francine Rivers’ best seller, opens in many mid to larger markets nationwide Feb. 8.

The story, directed by veteran “Christian movie” helmer Michael Landon Jr., focuses on an isolated Welsh community in 1850’s Appalachia and the personal tragedy at the center of one family, a tragedy that puts 10-year-old Cadi Forbes in search of the “Sin Eater” – a shadowy figure in Welsh social tradition invoked to voluntarily take the sins of the dearly departed upon his own damned soul.

Think you can see where this one’s headed already? You’re right. Sort of.

But like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village – which I suspect inspired the film’s tone as much as anything in the book – there’s more going on than meets the eye in this sleepy cove of farmers, bee keepers and porch-settin’ old folks.

Tragedy runs deep in old school Appalachian bluegrass music, and one appeal of Sin Eater is watching the source material for some of those songs in the action. It’s an uplifting story ultimately, with an effective catharsis mounted by the steady-handed Landon and a well-crafted screenplay.

At this level of the biz, of course, forget big-star name recognition. There’s Henry Thomas (E.T., All the Pretty Horses, Gangs of New York) and Academy Award winner Louise “Nurse Ratched” Fletcher, about as far from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as humanly possible. But Thomas is a glorified cameo, and Fletcher is hardly Oscar-worthy here, laboring through a measured Gaelic brogue more Swedish Chef than Old Country Welsh.

But there the criticisms end.

The cast is strategically comprised of actors you’ll recognize but probably need IMDB.com to figure out why. With one or two exceptions, they’re stellar – particularly the Sin Eater himself, played with dark, Phantom of the Opera-like gravitas by the prolific TV actor Peter Wingfield.

Then there’s Liana Liberato as Cadi. A relative newcomer with a handful of previous small-screen roles under her belt, Liberato breezes through a demanding role that, while never as high-octane as anything on Dakota Fanning's resume, suggests she’s as much a natural.

Liberato plays the pre-pubescent lost soul with conviction, giving the film its greatest strength – the ability to convince us of sin’s reality and the downward tug it can have on any life, no matter how young or otherwise “innocent.”

More than the tug sin can have, it’s the tug it should have that modern viewers most take away from the experience. The power of Christ to heal the broken heart is largely lost today, even on Christians like me, in a culture that denies any need for healing in the first place.

But I can hear you now… “Sin and tragedy? Sign me up!”

Happy to report, Liberato also nails the other side of her character, a Tom and Becky-like relationship with fellow spiritual traveler Fagan (Soren Fulton, Thunderbirds). The spunkiness of their unspoken crush is fun to watch and provides a nice emotional counterpoint to the rest.

Did I mention the “purple mountain majesties” cinematography? Worth the price of admission, particularly if you live somewhere currently under three feet of snow.

One minor quibble.

I haven’t read the book so I can’t say for sure, but from conversations with those who have, it seems they jazzed the ending a wee bit here. And in a way that – for a knee-jerk conservative like me – borders on the sort of Dances With Wolves revisionism to the American experience that never fails to work me into a frenzy.

Granted, I’m a right-wing nut job (and former history major) who often sees that stuff where never intended. Nor did I approach frenzy status. Whatever its politics, this late-inning twist to the story adds nothing to the more powerful, more real, story of Cadi and her family.

Still, a solid film recommended on multiple levels. So get out there and support this film before they stop making them again.

Next month, a review of Fox Faith’s next release, The Ultimate Gift.

To find a theater showing The Last Sin Eater near you, visit http://www.foxfaithmovies.com/.

1 comment:

DissonanceIsBliss said...

FoxFaith doesn't need Thr3e's box office to make a profit. They set their film budgets in a range that they can easily make back with DVD sales. Or so the Germans would have us believe.
--Mike